A top-down guide to avoiding “Ghost Town Syndrome”

Monday, 6th April 2009 at 9:00 UTC 3 comments

Council are demanding the ability to tidy up their town centres by finding uses for closing shops, mostly for the avoidance of “anti-social behaviour”. What is to be categorised in that term is anyone’s guess, but here’s some very social ideas on how these premises should be handled.

Chatting to a student recently, I found myself recounting the tale of the Peace Hotel in York that opened briefly during 2003, a squatted space for films and discussion and accommodation (and lots of accommodation did it have, for it was originally the 50-room White Swan hotel). The project wasn’t exactly a roaring success, as the building was already run down, and the crew doing the project weren’t exactly up to it.

There was then the Bonding Warehouse, which sought to turn the beautiful old river-side building into a space for arts and leisure, despite the stupidity of squatting an unheated and un-heat-able building in the middle of a British winter. It did, however, have the bizarre reputation of being the only squat in known history to feature classical music recitals. (Only in York! Huh!)

Anyhow, what wonderful things might happen in the empty shops of York? Really, it could be just about anything, after all, the choice of sites is, to all intents and purposes, endless (by which I mean, it would be incredibly hard to make use of them all), and in a recession, all sorts of possibilities open up.

For instance, a claimants union and advice centre might be a possibility, a launch pad for projects that aim to put the unemployed back in charge of their lives, Art spaces have been done far too many times, but are worth reconsidering. A meeting place perhaps? A free shop and space for serving Food Not Bombs meals would be excellent (though the latter more difficult if the council want to cause hassle).

The thing is, most of these can’t be provided by the council. What the council can provide is merely a route into whatever work is available and advice on how to behave correctly in modern Britain, and perhaps an art gallery for art that it has deemed acceptable (I doubt the Dursley project has provided an increase in “freedom of speech”).

The Local Government Association’s list (libraries, youth clubs, training centres and bring-and-buy sales) mostly conforms to my suspicions of back-to-work projects and government controlled youth centres. As a recent convert to the love of Copenhagen, let me say I have no interest in a government run youth centre opening up. Youths should be encouraged to demand a space for themselves that they can run, not somewhere that things are provided for them but which they have no real control over. Most cities still have decent enough public libraries, and the bring and buy shop idea is just a silly idea for a bring and take stall.

The fact is, whilst recessions cause enormous problems and hurt many people, they also leave a lot of people with time on their hands and provide many opportunities for action to develop a better community. These actions, these interruptions of the usual business of separating people up and having them endlessly consume goods, services and government information need to get started somewhere. I wonder how long it will be before someone tries something amazing and exciting.


Entry filed under: Community, Free Space, Free Speech, Materialism, Participation, Unemployment.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anna  |  Monday, 6th April 2009 at 19:30 UTC

    Great post, Graham. I was muttering the other day about how few places there were to sit in town without having to buy something, and these are some really exciting ideas.

  • 2. mafoo  |  Tuesday, 7th April 2009 at 14:17 UTC

    The trouble with places to sit down without spending money, and providing free food etc. is that the council won’t like the price “free” undercutting all the food and drink places in town and hurting their businesses when they’re in difficulties already.

    An art space could provide food as well as music and art. I don’t see why the distribution of food can not in itself be considered an artistic act.

  • 3. Lois  |  Wednesday, 8th April 2009 at 12:55 UTC

    I agree. The difficulty is partly, I suppose, finding people with the vision and the time (and perhaps the money) to make things happen.


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